Last week, an ad from the Change4Life Campaign was placed all over the U.K. depicting a young boy holding a video game controller with large text over his head reading: "Risk an early death. Just do nothing." Nowhere in that ad did it explicitly say video games could cause children to die early, but the message was there, and a handful of video game developers took offense.
Codemasters' CEO Rod Cousens said, "Governments have a unique ability to get it wrong." Sega Europe President and COO Mike Hayes said in an interview that he and the rest of the employees at his company were "very disappointed" with the ad. He went on to say that "it remains a deep frustration that video gaming is selected to present a negative image of the U.K.'s children, youth, consumer at large and the industry."
Atari issued a statement saying "at best, the campaign is misleading and at worst, damaging to the industry, its reputation and its potential." It followed that up by registering a formal complaint with the U.K.'s Advertising Standards Authority.
For its part, the U.K. Department of Health said in a statement that the ads are "not saying that children shouldn't play computer games or eat treats, but parents and children need to be aware of the benefits of a balanced diet and an active lifestyle."
This wasn't the government's first attack on the video game industry. The U.K. government, through this Change4Life campaign, earlier this year released a commercial showing a child playing a video game and then used the camera to zoom in to his body to show fat building up. He's later shown as an effigy of himself in the video game, with the phrase "Game Over" displayed on-screen.
Once again, the U.K. Department of Health said in a statement that it wasn't attacking video games, but it wanted to remind parents that an "unhealthy lifestyle, including poor diet or being inactive, can lead to health problems in later life."
Where's the outcry? Where are the major developers, like EA and Activision, speaking out against this? Why isn't the video game industry doing more to battle this Change4Life campaign? Sega and Atari, with their cryptic messages, won't do anything to change how video games are treated. More needs to be done.
The Change4Life campaign isn't the only example of the video game industry getting hit hard in the PR realm. Jack Thompson has made a name for himself doing the same, and his recent strides in getting what some call an anti-video-game bill passed is proof of that.
People like retired Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, the author of a book called "On Killing," have been calling video games "murder simulators" and point to their own research to show that violent video games cause children to be more violent.
There is, in other words, no shortage of people who want to see video games killed.
But I don't hear much from the video game industry when issues like this crop up. Sure, there are a few statements released by concerned developers. The occasional CEO claims to draw a line in the sand, but when will the video game industry start fighting back in a meaningful way?
Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three other entertainment activities that ensure kids won't be "active" the way the U.K. government wants them to be and could, based on their reasoning, end their life early: reading, watching television, and attending movies.
And twice (not once, but twice!), the Change4Life campaign has targeted video games as the culprit and somehow forgotten about movies, television, and books. Sure, reading books is good for the child's mind, but she is stationary in a chair, right?
And there's another defense to this campaign that I haven't heard often enough from the industry: there are an increasing number of games that make children more active. Most of the titles on the Wii force you to stand up. And what about Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Fit? Why did the video game industry forget these great arguments on its own behalf?
Perhaps there's a broader issue here that won't be solved so easily. The average gamer is about 35 years old. But most anti-video-game organizations assume the average gamer is a child. The video game industry isn't making it clear that the games being created aren't necessarily catering to children--a relatively small demographic in the customer base--but to the largest demographic of them all: adults.
And the industry also isn't making it clear that most parents are perfectly fine with video games. According to a recent study from Microsoft's Play Smart, Play Safe campaign, 76 percent of parents (in the U.K., no less) believe video games are beneficial for their children. Granted, Microsoft has a vested interest in seeing that study return those results, but if we are to believe every detail, doesn't that suggest the video game industry actually has leverage it can use to its advantage in its PR battle against the U.K. Department of Health?
Based on what I've seen so far from the industry, it's willing to take a beating from government, lawyers, authors, and concerned groups and it does little to fight back. Meantime, I receive e-mails from parents on an almost daily basis asking me why video games are so bad for their kids. Whenever that happens, I write them a short but informative e-mail saying, "They're not as bad as some groups say and here's research to prove it."
What's stopping video game industry representatives from saying the same thing?